What a year! 2013 was only my second year on a mountain bike after a decade long hiatus, and did it feel great! I wanted to make the most of it, so I made a point of scheduling rides on trails I hadn’t visited before, of working to improve my fitness, and of making a few key component upgrades to my bike while staying within a limited budget.
One of the component upgrades I made this year was by necessity – tires. Like so many aspects of bikes today, tires have improved dramatically by incorporating a range of technologies that weren’t readily available a decade or two ago. For example, the ability to run your tires without tubes and rubber compounds designed specifically for the terrain you ride. Having now put about 1000kms on these tires, I thought it would be helpful sharing my experience.
Most of my riding is done on cross-country trails in Southern Ontario, which for those unfamiliar readers, is generally composed of hard-packed soils, exposed tree roots and small rocks. Accordingly, I purchased a set of Continental Race Kings 29 x 2.2 Protection. These tires feature a puncture protection layer in the casing both to prevent pinch flats if you run tubes and to make the tire tubeless ready. They also feature Continental’s BlackChili Compound rubber, which improves grip while reducing rolling resistance. The tread pattern is a directional, tightly arranged set of triangular shaped blocks with a low and round profile. For most Ontario trails, this tire appeared to offer everything I needed.
Yet, I also knew that I would occasionally encounter mud and wet weather, loose rocky conditions, and simply more aggressive trails. Therefore, I decided I would also purchase a secondary tire – the Continental X-Kings 29 x 2.2 Protection. Like the Race Kings, the X-Kings feature the Protection casing, the BlackChili Compound rubber, a directional tread and a round profile. The primary difference is that the X-Kings have medium spaced square block treads with a moderate height, which enables the X-Kings to succeed in a wide range of trail conditions.
Now, with the technical information out of the way, let me share my thoughts on these tires. The Race Kings are fast! I have been regularly impressed how much faster my bike will roll versus similar bikes with different tires. The moment I first noticed this was on a mid-season club ride when I was coasting on a double track trail with a slight downward elevation. Side-by-side with other riders, my bike would seemingly gain speed and hold momentum whereas others required rider effort. Yet, they’re also fast because they offer predictable traction. In the corners, I found I could lean as aggressively as I needed they would hold the line. And, if I pushed too hard and they started to slide, they would drift slowly and reconnect without any surprises. I found myself cornering with more confidence as a result. Climbing and descending, the Race Kings always seemed to find grip.
Yet, as great as the Race Kings are in my opinion, they aren’t perfect. In particular, their performance in mud can be a little like trying to ride on ice. Although this surprised me at first, it really shouldn’t have. Consider the tires on your vehicle and the performance improvement a winter tire can make in the winter compared to a summer or an all season tire. Analogously, the Race Kings are great in dry conditions, but are rarely the best tire when conditions are wet. Continental doesn’t hide this fact and, after I tried pushing these limits, I was glad I picked up the X-Kings as my secondary tire.
I had the chance to ride the X-Kings on a very wide range of conditions recently, and they excel where the Race Kings suffer. I participated in the cross-country race at the Bells Beer Copper Harbor Trails Festival this year, which unfortunately coincided with a substantial rain storm. The trail conditions were muddy, rocky, slippery, fast and generally dangerous. In this context, you’d expect most tires to struggle a little, but not the X-Kings. Muddy off-camber single track with exposed roots: the X-Kings didn’t miss a beat. Enduro descents with sharp rocks, large drop-offs and skinny wooden bridges: I had to push very hard before I came close to reaching the limits of the X-Kings. In fact, they saved me from more than one mistake. I also rode the X-Kings in moderately dry conditions and, although they didn’t roll as quickly as the Race Kings, were still very smooth and fast in the dry.
In summary, my upgrade to the Continental Race Kings and X-Kings was one of the best setup decisions I made this year. I’d recommend most Ontario riders maintain two sets of tires – in the same way I recommend two sets of tires for your car, summer and winter. If you prefer the simplicity of a single tire setup, the Race Kings will likely be the better tire in most trail conditions, while the X-Kings will be a good tire on your average ride and a great tire when you need it most.
See you on the trails!